(Credit: © Alex Schröder)
This summer, after 40 years onstage, legendary soprano Nelly Miricioiu said goodbye to her performance career with concerts at Wigmore Hall and in Bucharest.
The Romanian soprano was well-known for her interpretations in the bel canto and verismo repertoire and performed at all the leading opera houses in the world including the Teatro alla Scala, Metropolitan Opera, Royal Opera House, and Teatro Colon, among others. Miricioiu also left a wide-ranging discography of rare works by Respighi, Donizetti, Mercadante, Puccini, Rossini, Pacini, and worked very closely with Opera Rara.
After celebrating her 70th birthday, the soprano is ready for a new phase in her life and ready to continue teaching while also spending more time with her family and doing things she didn’t get to do while singing.
OperaWire interviewed the soprano and spoke about her decision to leave the stage, her great memories, and how she sees the future of opera.
OperaWire: When did you realize it was time to say goodbye to the stage?
Nelly Miricioiu: It’s very hard to say goodbye to the stage. I also kept myself and the instrument in very good shape. I didn’t feel that I was wobbly to say to myself that “I should stop.” What happened was that during COVID so many events were canceled and emotionally I was very drained. I was teaching a lot and was trying to find something of depth that was similar to what I used to have in performances. I realized that the business that we are in has changed and I had to adjust and mold it around other people. I have grown to admire and respect what is coming in a new generation but also to make me realize that we are the old generation and time is changing. What we had was beautiful but I do not intend to reproduce it. It is not healthy. I am not one of those people who wants to say “in my time.” Everything was fantastic in my time and we had ups and downs and we tried and we failed sometimes. We also had a lot of success.
Throughout the past years, I had a lot of personal things happen. My mother died a few years ago and my husband Barry (Kirk) had kidney cancer and he had septicemia twice and I nearly lost him. Then I was hit with Bowel cancer and then COVID on top of it all. So three years of all these things and me throwing myself into teaching made me want to say goodbye on my own terms. It was I who created this event in Bucharest and then in London. These are the two countries that I belong to. I would have loved to do it in Holland but it did not work the way I wanted it to. And in the end, I believe in destiny. The universe said just relax, one country of birth and one country of adoption, and stop. The universe helped me fulfill it because I had no idea what it was going to be. I had the dream and the project and Maria Moz, my agent. We talked two years ago and said, let’s make it happen. She said, let’s make it happen starting with Bucharest and I picked it up from there.
Then I wrote to Wigmore Hall and I said, I am going to be 70 and I would like to celebrate that. At that point, I was not thinking of the farewell. Then when I started to prepare the operatic program, I realized that there are two different parts of me that both needed to say goodbye, the operatic singer and the lieder singer. I wanted to explore the variety of my musicianship and voice as well as my experience. So that is when the idea came and I said that I wanted to do the farewell.
That was a lot of pressure on me because in the meantime I was hit with COVID and that was not easy. Then I had allergies and I was in Barcelona and it was hard. I couldn’t sing. But I kept believing in my destiny and that was what helped me through my entire career and life.
I must say that I have had a 40-year career without all the benefits that others have had but I think it made me more knowledgeable and more humble.
OW: The Farewell is very rare these days. Many singers continue or disappear. Tell me about having this privilege and ending your career on your own terms.
NM: I know that and I think it has a lot to do with me. In my time this used to be something. Joan Sutherland did a farewell and I know that a lot of singers had farewells in each country and for me that was not important. It was the way I shaped myself because of all the factors I had coming from a communist country. Leaving the country and trying to shape myself here helped. It has always been on my terms and that way I give myself freedom. When we are performing we are artists. We are prisoners in many ways no matter how much we enjoy our prison. We are still trapped in our own passions and that is a cross you carry with you. Some people take it lightly. I did not. I was all intensity and I think it has to do with where I came from and the type of life that I had in Romania. That made me very thoughtful and self-analytical. I never wanted to be judgmental of myself and yet I was. So doing that during COVID-19, I started to get to know myself because I was teaching and I was teaching them the exact opposite of what I tortured myself with. I released my passion and my burning desire to be on stage was no longer there.
I think the very first time I said I didn’t want to be on stage anymore happened when I was teaching a student and helping her prepare for a role. She was doing everything I said and she was brilliant and it fulfilled me in that respect. That is the moment I felt free of wanting to go up there. So there are many things that have come into my life. Now I want to have a normal life before I lose my husband and before I have health issues. So yes, I had the privilege to say goodbye and I am happy.
OW: Now that you have said goodbye, tell me about some of your memorable experiences and roles that you were able to do.
NM: There were many in reality. I know I was madly in love with “La Fiamma” by Respighi and I was in love with “Iris” by Mascagni. These are the two operas that I came home and couldn’t take out of my mind. I always had to learn new works because I debuted five new operas a year and that was enormous for any artist. So I had to move very quickly. But those two held me back. They had a mixture between music, intelligence, culture, philosophy, and spirituality. They also had texts that were so intelligently written. Apart from that, I loved being Norma. I loved her humanity and her self-sacrifice. I loved the final scene. It is so grandiose. The music is full of everything that I desire in life, energy, and people. All the good qualities that we can have as human beings.
I loved Violetta but I was not passionate about her. The same thing happened with Tosca. I adored “Roberto Devereux.” That was something. That moment when she takes off her wig and I remained bald. That is where you see the real persona. That was significant because we artists always have to put on a persona and after a while, you have to play yourself. This is a trap that I didn’t want to fall into. I wanted a normal life.
When I met my husband who is an engineer, he knew nothing about opera and I wanted normalcy. So I moved into an area where no one knew what an opera singer was. My choice was that I wanted to be down to earth in order to regain the energy to move back into the thrones. I also isolated myself when I was in productions. I would say, now it is not me, it is Maria Stuarda’s turn. The roles had an impact on me and everyone I sang I loved and believed in. I was the character. I loved Anna Bolena particularly when I did it in Brussels. It was a production that was beautiful but something was working so the director rebuilt the last act for me where I had very short hair. That was my idea. I imagined that when she went to prison she had her hair cut off. It was quite a modern production. It was quite a sinister but beautiful production. I love that take on Anna Bolena and the madness.
I love music and I honestly can’t tell you one role. But I was always excited by Bel Canto.
OW: Most singers say that the role they are performing at that moment is their favorite. Is that your case?
NM: It’s very true. I have been privileged to have so many roles and characters so I didn’t have time to be bored. I remember “La Fiamma” in a production by Hugo de Ana. It was not easy or accessible because he wanted to create something of a witch but not a witch. The text of “La Fiamma” has a double or even triple meaning. Hugo created this kind of mirage that everything can be truthful and real and honest and normal. And I love this kind of approach.
OW: Having had such a long opera career, what kind of advice do you give the new generation of Opera Singers who have to face a lot of new challenges like social media and a world of HD?
NM: The way I see it is to first advise the opera houses to change their ways. In my time it was the flavor of the month and so much of the glamour. In my time I never believed in it. That is why my choices of opera houses were very telling. I don’t want opera houses to cocoon the artist and only put some of the artists that come with fireworks and brainwash the public to come. Go to artists and cultivate them.
For young singers, it is a hard job because there is so much focus on media. It can work for you but it can work against you. The media does not understand what an artist is or the work that is involved and what is required. The media is not educated. The language is appalling and rude and vulgar. It already says a lot about the view and reviews that are being put out. So this democracy where everyone is entitled to say what they want is not only reflecting on music but on the whole world. So I just hope we can all start to read a little bit more and watch a little more documentaries and educate ourselves.
I say to the young singers, always follow your stars. Don’t look to be an overnight Pavarotti or Callas. Every star that is up there has been singing a lot. It is only when the media notices them that we believe that they were discovered or an overnight success. It’s hard work from the beginning and they all go through a lot of hardship. But believe in what your call is. Also believe in who you take as an advisor and that means a coach, conductor, or teacher. Take advice from everybody but filter and try out what works and is compatible with what you have as an instinct. But you have to have passion and commitment.
OW: What do you say to artists who have these successes?
NM: Don’t sleep on it. One of the artists that I adored was Madonna. She was an example because she always reinvented herself. That is what we also should do. Just because you had a success today does not mean you have to be stagnant. If you do that then the opera house will keep you. But if you rely on what you had before, it is boring. You need to be different. And this is not today. Today we are so visual and we see so many special effects. It is our job to create those visual effects. Everyone has to think for themselves if they want to carry on. Remember “All About Eve,” there is always another Eve waiting out there.
OW: One of the things we hear a lot in opera is they “did that in the Golden Age” and we are also always using the old recordings as references. Why do you think that still happens?
NM: I find that I lack harmonics in modern singing. It may be exact and there may be phenomenal top notes. They may have big sounds but when I go back to the golden era and I remember singing with them like Piero Capuccuilli and Ruggero Raimondi, there was a maximum stretch of the chord that created that vibrant sound. Today singers do not have the right approach to technique and the vocal cords are not challenged the way mother nature wants them. They are challenged in a mechanical way. So instead of trying to function every muscle in their body, they don’t understand how to balance the sound. The abdomen becomes very stiff. I think we lost it in the modern technique because orchestras have also become bigger and they create bigger sounds. They don’t accompany anymore and they have become more like soloists. Few conductors nowadays know what they are doing. I don’t only fault the singers because a lot of things are not right.
You need extreme focus and concentration. I see that in the recordings of the past like with Mario del Monaco because that sound was extremely focused. I also love hearing those recordings because I find them more caressing and loving instead of just a deliverance that is waiting for a top note or something like it. I don’t see life in some of the singers of today. There is no glitter in their eyes that is telling me that it is from within or within their guts.
If you look at the old school, the maestro vocalized them for six months and did not let them sing anything. It was just vocalize. What we are seeing now is singers singing repertoire that is pushed too fast. Some singers are given something like Aida so quickly because they have big voices. But I always look at what else they can do. They can still do Nedda and Mimi with their voice. You have to understand the voice properly to be able to guide the young singer.
OW: Is directing something you would do in the future?
NM: I have done one production because I wanted to try my hand at it. I am good at making movements but I do not have the originality of ideas. But I can move people. I love it. So if there was a desire for it, I would love to help a producer. So he has the genius and I can adapt the singers of how the voice and body can connect to his ideas. I would love to collaborate like that.
OW: Will you continue Masterclasses?
NM: I love doing masterclasses and I will continue doing that. I like to call myself a master because I look after everything. I am not a teacher. I am a master because if something tells me “dolore,” my body instinctively goes into a pain in my body. Some people who are singing don’t know what the word means. I usually get them in the words and I pick the words that are unusual to see if they have done the research. And half of them don’t know. They just translate to have a general idea and they go to the poetical idea of it. And as a result, they don’t quite get the flavor. Sometimes I say to them and ask them about the dynamics or musical phrases. And they don’t understand. These are the things that should be taught but not in isolation. People go to theater classes in isolation and they learn how to act but it’s not in tandem with the music. They don’t learn to feel the role.
When I was singing, we would have a producer and we would do the role and then we would have to repeat it and we would have to find what he wanted. We had to feel it. You can not spoon-feed it. The conservatories are to blame because they do not understand it and they give you so little time.
OW: What is next in this phase of your life?
NM: I still want to look after my artists and I will be more selective because I love to see my artists blossom. I will do some things that I could not do in my career. I don’t want to wake up anymore and see if my voice is there. Instead, I want to read more and I want to spend more time with my husband and my son. I don’t want anymore projects but I do want my voice and legacy to remain so I will be active on social media. Most importantly I am staying open to life and it feels liberating.